On the Termination of Professor

All the tenured others have a name,
but he had transcended delimiters
and his surname became what was
for others simply a title – Professor.

Such was his reputation, amassed
over years of walks across the quad,
tattered tweed and unkempt, thinning
hair, never so proud so as to style.

His flair was the attentive mind
of the absentminded academic, but
he knew where every scrap of paper,
book, idea, and every word rested.

The office was never neat, swept,
untouched by time even dust shunned,
a couch for naps, chairs for stacks
of papers begun and undone.

Diplomas, awards hung on a wall
hidden behind tassels, programs of
graduations long ago, and three walls
shelve-covered and book burdened.

Office hours maintained sacredly
but scarcely attended but for a few;
puzzling and time passed to most,
sought and honored by only some.

Matter of fact questions earned the
reply of a tale, legend, story to explain
the unexplainable why ; every plea for
a story earned a who-what-when-where.

His time had passed, but he stood still
convinced that learning was progress
granted the guarantee of title his battle
was now one of perceived value.

Once freshman seminar his load,
now only electives and covering
for sabbaticals of the young, restless
who used post- in journal submissions.

Post-tenure review was the remedy
from a utilitarian board in the know,
failing to manage an unsustainable shift
from Professor to professionals.

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Living in the Shadow of Narcissius

Mirror“The body is a house of many windows: there we all sit, showing ourselves and crying on the passers-by to come and love us.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

What’s a pronoun?

That’s simple: a pronoun replaces a noun to make sentences less cumbersome.

(This would be a good place for an example, but that would be cumbersome.)

So let’s move on.

What’s a personal pronoun?

It’s how we talk about ourselves, each other and others. That’s simple enough.

Personal pronouns refer to person(s) that act as the subject.

And acting as the subject sounds important… it sounds empowering… doesn’t it?

We all like to feel important. That’s why moms and sometimes dads, teachers and some counselors told us, over and over again—how special we were. And we believe them… for a while at least.

But that stops, or at least it should stop.

If it doesn’t stop it’s called narcissism—a personality disorder more and more common among adolescents and adults. Maybe we didn’t learn how to negotiate the adjustment to adulthood, or maybe we believed all the pep-talks of childhood. But somewhere along the way we lost our way.

Narcissism is the trait of vanity, conceit and selfishness. (Now it sounds familiar, right?) It’s what’s wrong with us if we think the world and everyone in it should talk to us like our mama’s once did.

And if we don’t get over ourselves we become our own worst enemy.

In Greek mythology Narcissus was a self-absorbed young hunter from Thespiae in Boeotia. Some might not think it fair that poor Narcissus earned such a bad reputation because he was, in fact, beautiful. But he was also so proud of himself that he felt contempt for those who showed him love.

Sounds familiar, right?

From Narcissus we’ve either learned so much or learned to become so much. It’s hard to figure out whether we’ve become ourselves or we’re just being typical.

Narcissists are shameless, twisting themselves into perfection by distorting others, in arrogance degrading others for self-elevation; envying others because they’re entitled, exaggerating and bragging achievements without regret or gratitude.

How many narcissists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one. He holds the bulb while the world revolves around him.

And it’s common. Too common.

Everyone knew this about Narcissus but no one knew how to give him what he deserved. Except for Nemesis (in Greek her name means to give what is deserved, and we use the word nemesis to mean enemy—what’s deserved and our enemy are the same thing).

Nemesis made sure pretty boy got what he deserved. She led him a pool of water where he saw his own reflection and fell in love with what he saw. But he didn’t realize it was just his reflection.

This would be the right time to ask about looking in mirrors. They tell the truth and won’t lie to us; it’s what we see in them that makes the difference.

So let’s do it; look in a mirror.

If someone else is watching, and we don’t make it quick, what will others think?

Who cares?

It’s time to look ourselves in the mirror while others are watching.

And not care.

Narcissus was not only told how special he was, he believed it in the worst way possible.

He was trapped by his own reflection and was condemned to spend the rest of his days admiring his own reflection in the pool.

Narcissus was condemned by the first person singular—himself.

Narcissus only cared about Narcissus.

So let’s look in the mirror.

Can we see more than our own reflection?

Can we see a different pronoun than Narcissus saw?

What’s our pronoun?

Elizabeth Parsonage

An excerpt from a budding manuscript…

Elizabeth 2Chapter One – Go You Wildcats

In small towns that were once frontiers of hope and promise of so much more – of gold that turned out to be lead ore, the expansive and unlimited plains and the rich earth of the Mississippi Valley where settlements supported surrounding laborers breaking rock or dark earth with heavy and rich yields – life is different with good reason. Isolated by relative circumstance, these small towns crisscross America and if one could connect all these dots it would form a patchwork blanketing the land’s contours, creating the illusion of a crowded network from one point of view. But close-up, in the space in between this and that town, there are few enough people to leave room for productive labor, not far from outlets of provision, but with space to breathe and an uncrowded landscape to see.

At first isolated settlements weren’t escapes from urban preoccupation with noise, and for few were they a comparable opportunity for riches. They didn’t flee industrialization or the growing sense that productivity was becoming the measure of human success, replacing contentment and virtue with utilitarian and pragmatic preoccupation. Enough labor for enough reward for enough supply for enough comfort for enough opportunity for contentment –enough for life that few would call happy without significant qualification. In rock or earth, both or either were a good even if hard source of living, somehow sanctified by the motto Early to bed, early to rise. Rest was welcomed but not worshipped, leisure was enjoyed instead of planned, and the evening prayer was Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright with the morning light, to do what’s right with all your might.

They may live along a lonely road, and live among lonely people –not always, but often. But loneliness is relative, sometimes coming from straightforward emotional isolation, sometimes the quiet we so earnestly desire becomes the very danger that threatens our well being, and sometimes perfectly acceptable physical isolation, like living in a perpetually small township with little variation in lifestyle save that of the four seasons, stupefies its residents so that the greatest argument is over the experience of loneliness itself. The cure of such loneliness isn’t a simple reversal of circumstances, the sensory overload of immersion in a crowded setting or stadium or even a city; the cure may be a little hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-us, but that isn’t so much a cure as it is a treatment. It is learning to live with the satisfaction of isolated living –Simple is as simple does, as the old-timers say. –And that just might be the aphorism of Elizabeth, Illinois, U.S.A.

Most of the buildings in town were constructed before World War II, but there were a few old farmhouses, a town hall, a railroad depot, and dozens and dozens of barns dotting the landscape that survived the nineteenth century. The Baptist church and parsonage next door were built just after the War to End All Wars but before the next War to End All Wars. The motto being, Use care with superlatives. Anything that was wood frame is gone, remembered but gone. And buildings that remain are wood and brick and stone, stone and brick and wood, and the township was built and torn down and rebuilt.

Of course there’d been explorers and missionaries through the area, but they’d already moved on in their interminable march to anywhere else. They wrote journals and reports of the landscape, the Indians, the climate, and the peculiarities that when compared to where else they’d been made for the remarkable. When the first white settler arrived in the territory, a surly man named A. P. VanMatre, he traveled because of the report of rich hills for land mining near the Fever River. He settled in 1825 and was too busy to be lonely; too busy building a smelter and making money with hard work and a seeming unlimited supply of lead ore. Two years later a fur trapper settled nearby and his name was Henry VanVolkenburg (and it seemed that you needed to be VanSomething-or-other to live here). It isn’t official, but folks tell a story about the two Van’s, about how they got to know each other in their free time. Then someone else who’s an insider to the joke says But I thought they didn’t know each other, and the first person says That’s because they didn’t have any free time. That’s frontier humor for you. And you say But that wasn’t funny, and the response is That’s because they were too busy working to be funny.

The area was first claimed by the French and they had a trading post in the late seventeenth century, but then an Englishman and officer of the British Commonwealth named Wolfe defeated them on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec in September, 1759 and to the victor go the spoils, including the hilly area we call Jo Daviess County and everything around it called the Upper Midwest. That is, until the Revolutionary War spoiled the spoiled in the famous Treaty of 1783 but then the area was claimed by Virginia. They gave it up, and it turned out that Virginia control of the remainder of the known world was just a formality. Speaking of formalities, without ever seeing the area Congressmen enacted the even more infamous Ordinance of 1787 that divided up uninhabited lands to the West by geographic markers like the Mississippi River and making the area West and North of the Ohio River into at least three and no more than five states. Sometimes the lines were drawn along waterways, sometimes along valley basins, and sometimes it looked like someone stretched a line from one place to another to come up with a state and as arbitrary as it seems that’s why folks live where they live instead of someplace else.

Farmers followed VanMatre and VanVolkenburg and changed the balance of odd to ordinary names when Winters and two brothers named Flack cut the rich soil and planted a first crop of corn in the area and the rest, as they say, is history. Mining and farming, farming and mining, made the area livable and that’s Jo Daviess County from its establishment February 17, 1827 to today; at first literally, then faming took over but mining became the first story in Elizabeth’s history, The Lore of the Ore, as they say.

Why mining? That’s the way it’s always been actually. Geologists call this the southern terminus of the Driftless Region, an area that covers the upper Midwest of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Iowa. About two million years ago, back in the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch (that’s the sixth epoch of the Cenozoic era of geologic time for those of you keeping score), this area supposedly didn’t have glaciers while everywhere else nearby did. That’s why all around is leveled land, flat and without contour, but the Mississippi River area has deep valleys that were pushed, shoved and cut by the undulation of advancing and receding glaciers nearby that teased the area only to dump their outwash deposits of silt, sand and gravel and made the mighty Mississippi a mighty drain, flushing waters but leaving the rugged and rich deposits that drew settlers to the area in the nineteenth century. Thus it was, and thus it will always be.

The first official settlers were a small crowd that stayed small; and the story always goes back to two men: John Winters the farmer and Captain Clack Stone. The Captain owned the claim to the village of Elizabeth and that meant they had all the responsibility but just a little authority. They took care of settlement claims and kept the peace, which they thought would be an easy job and they’d nurture the area into a modest infamy. Infamy it was, but not modestly thanks to a little incident known as the Black Hawk War in 1832. On May 15th Captain Clack Stone’s Company, the 27th Regiment Illinois Militia was called out of retirement to repel the aggression of the Sac and Fox Indians all because they reacted poorly to President Andrew Jackson’s order of relocation to west of the Mississippi. There’s a suspicious account of a cowardly retreat (or Was it wise? –that’s the debate) by some of the militia on May 14th that led to the Governor’s order the very next day to Captain Clack Stone and the war was on.

The battle took one farming season, May to August, which was unfortunate for the farmers, but the peaceful result of war was a happy irony that was tragic but short lived enough to become historically curious and provide the Chamber of Commerce another folksy attraction in what is now a quite farming community that it’s always been. Soundly quiet, that is until the Chicago Great Western Railroad came ‘a steamin through in 1888, stopping at the Depot on Myrtle Street in downtown Elizabeth and connecting the sleepy community to Chicago to Iowa to Minnesota to Omaha, Nebraska, to Missouri (obviously not a straight route). They built an elaborate tunnel west of Elizabeth called the Winston Tunnel. It was over a half-mile long and was the longest in Illinois –considering the topography of Illinois it was pretty much the only place someone could build a half-mile tunnel without digging straight down.

Now it’s the next century and Elizabeth, Illinois, is pretty much the same it was last century. Except the railroad’s gone now, the tracks torn up not long ago, the Depot is a historical site, and the impressive tunnel became such a burden to maintain that it was closed as well. Mining lost its luster after its glorious contribution to the Civil War armory. And the Fort the settlers hastily built in the Black Hawk War is also gone, the lumber used to build a barn for farming. Only the farming remains, and the rest are the stories of history.

These days almost seven hundred people live in Elizabeth, in 1950 almost seven hundred people lived here, and in 1900 almost seven hundred people lived here. And the same thing can be said for the town’s downtown; there is a diner named Wiler’s right along the main street cutting through town, a bar, a bank, a grocery and variety store, a B & B and a craft and antique shoppé owned by the same woman, a town hall and a township library, and two or three churches depending on how one defines the word Church. There’s the Baptist church, cleverly named Elizabeth Baptist Church, unaffiliated with any Baptist Convention. There’s a Lutheran church named St. John’s even though you’d expect it to be named after Paul, and the Saint part always bothered Baptists anyway because they say all true Christians (read Baptists) are saints themselves –at least Positionally, as they say. To call any of Jesus’ apostles Saints seemed sacrilegious to the real Protestants who called themselves Baptists and thought all other Protestants were just closet Papists. Luther didn’t go far enough and should have thrown the baby out with the baptistery water according to Baptists because the child shouldn’t be there in the first place. In town there’s also what used to be a Presbyterian church and it had one of those paedo baptisteries as well so they could sprinkle the secretly elect of God. But in the sovereign providence of the Almighty it seems Presbyterians weren’t predestined to thrive in the area and the church building was boarded up during in 20’s until a developer from Galena bought the building and turned it into a Wedding Chapel in the late 80’s, making for a sort of rural Las Vegas in Northern Illinois.

Families in this part of Jo Daviess County in Northwest Illinois send their kids to Hanover for middle-and junior high school (everyone except the Catholics and the growing number of home schooled these days), which means they take a bus ride each day and it gets iffy when ice and snow fall, as in anytime from November to March. Used to be that both Elizabeth and Hanover had their own schools in their own towns with their own teachers, but nowadays it’s different.

Back in the eighties the Elizabeth and Hanover schools consolidated into River Ridge Community School District number two hundred ten. The towns are eight miles apart and that was close enough to wonder if they couldn’t do more together than apart. Back in the seventies town leaders and pastors got involved and presented a united front about the unity of comm-unity, and then there was a referendum on the local ballot and everyone put big Yes or No signs on their front lawns. Those in favor, the Yes sign folks, said that even though it would cost more in property taxes the quality of education would also improve. Some Yes sign folks got caught up in the rhetoric and made it sound like their new School District would be the next Ivy League of primary and secondary education in the Upper Midwest –as is their hayseeds would blossom into Albert Schweitzers. Those opposed, the No sign people, said that classes would be too large and the quality of education would decrease, and it would raise property taxes.

The Yes’s won with over seventy five percent of the vote and property taxes went up proving that Winner takes all, but how he takes it sometimes hurts. The school district quickly became the County’s largest employer with more employees than the local electric, gas and telephone companies combined. Oh, and the property taxes kept going up, but the kids’ I.Q.’s remained about the same.

Everyone knew they were right about the tax burden; the argument was about whether the money would be well spent, and that’s always an argument in Jo Daviess County, as it should be everywhere else for that matter. Jo Daviess folks have always thought that some communities, like anywhere near Chicago, think that spending money is the solution to everyone’s problems, especially problems with their kids. Buy them a car, a video game, buy them anything to see if that makes them more loving, better young people. That means that the greatest failure as a parent comes from not having enough money to spend on their kids. In Jo Daviess County money doesn’t buy happiness and money doesn’t make you a better parent; maybe that’s because there’s not that much money around, and the money there is only comes from work and all the work in Jo Daviess County is hard work. So there’s a natural suspicion about throwing money at a problem, even if the problem is your own children.

That was the polite debate in town meetings and in Wiler’s diner, but everyone knew the real dispute was over the loss of each school’s traditions; Hanover’s school colors were red and gold, Elizabeth’s were navy blue and gray, Hanover’s school mascot/nickname/cheer was Go Wildcats! and Elizabeth’s was Hey Lions! In the compromise of consolidation the district’s school colors were navy blue and gray, and the mascot/nickname was Go Wildcats! One can be thankful that both school districts shared a lack of creativity when it came to school songs since they both used the same music (the Naval Academy’s Navy Blue and Gold tune) and the words were pretty much the same, except for the Wildcat/Lion thing. Now they all sing:

Let’s Go you Wildcats, win you Wildcats,

Let them hear our name.

We are the team from River Ridge,

We’ve come to prove our fame, Rah, Rah.

Now Go you Wildcats, win you Wildcats,

Hold our colors high.

The Blue and Gray will march along

To vic-to-ry today.

We are the Wildcats, fight-ing Wildcats,

Give your best al-ways.

Stand up, with pride, for River Ridge

Your loy-al-ty dis-play, Rah, Rah.

Now go you Wildcats, win you Wildcats,

Hold our colors high.

The Blue and Gray will march along

To vic-to-ry to-day.

But some people to-day still say It isn’t the same, and Nobody wins with compromise, and It’s better just to stick to what you know.

What people know in Elizabeth would flood the Mississippi, so to speak. The almost seven hundred residents know each other, sometimes too well and that blurs the line between common knowledge and gossip. As a rule, speaking ill of someone’s supposedly private affairs or goings-on’s is gossiping, but reporting things that are open like a book to anyone who wishes to read them is news. So when folks do the math and figure out that so-and-so’s baby was born just six months after so-and-so’s hastily planned wedding, well, then is it gossip or simple math? And the news would be malicious only if conceiving a baby out-of-wedlock was improper, which most people thought it was in 1900. By 1950 such a thing was unseemly but not necessarily sinful. And by 2000 it was understandable and the wedding made it legitimate and a happy occasion, like the story of Joseph and Mary when her virginity was under suspicion and instead of divorcing her he married her and made her an honorable woman in the unseemly situation. Except in Elizabeth the couple was named Jim and Susan and Susan was most definitely not known to be a virgin, and everyone said they made a nice couple, even at the shot-gun wedding, and they made a nice family living above the garage in back of Susan’s parents home until they get on their feet which took a while since Jim couldn’t find steady work…at least that’s what people were saying but the gossip was more sordid. And it all started-the Jim and Susan thing –because they were lonely, or bored, or both –but not for long, obviously.

There’s a steady stream of people through the town, so it’s not for lack of passersby that Elizabeth seems lonely to some. County highway 20 runs right through her, creating a northside and a southside that are almost identical to one another except for the Catholics on the northside and the Lutherans on the southside; the road joins one town to another, both bigger, with two or three of everything, and six or seven churches. To the east is Woodbine and then Stockton, big and bigger than Elizabeth but not as old, to the west is Galena and everyone knows and goes there.

–Fifty-five to thirty for almost two miles and fifty-five again none too quickly on the other side, offering pretty much the only excitement for her one sheriff. His name is Jason Markinson, the grown son of the previous sheriff named Mark who moved to Elizabeth after being wounded breaking-up a gang fight in a place where such skirmishes were happening too often, at least once too often for Mark. Sheriff Mark was famous for saying that he moved for his family, and resented any complaint of quiet days. His son Jason, on the other hand, appeared eager for the little excitement of his watch, and he preferred to be called Sheriff Markinson. His father was known as Sheriff Mark, or just Mark by the old-timers and his friends, a familiarity he used to his advantage to reconcile, treating Elizabeth’s residents as friends. Sheriff Markinson, on the other hand, thought his father was too lenient, resented being compared to him, and often had to be encouraged by the town’s council members to avoid trapping speeders, lest Elizabeth become known as a place to be avoided, slowly, but avoided nonetheless.

Mark was a good small-town sheriff, and his only frustration was with those who were frustrated with the small town of Elizabeth. Some lobbied for industry, development, wishing to offer incentives to attract business, dreaming of a hopeful future that was impossible at present. The others who were vocal were old-timers who sourly dismissed such vain wishes, and wondered why Elizabeth wasn’t good enough for others like it was for them. The majority, as in any place, was silent or just too busy making-do to make a fuss. Women’s consolation seemed to be daily chores and the spice of gossip reminding themselves of other, less fortunate women, or well-to-do neighbors who have at least as much trouble as money. The men’s distraction is work often without obvious reward and rarely the satisfaction of conclusion. And the children –they grew-up learning to find satisfaction in the ordinary but that doesn’t last much beyond high school for most, or they dared to hope to move anywhere else, and a few, but just a few, went-off to college never to return except for holidays or funerals.

Like most small towns, there was an unofficial group that took responsibility for the community. Elizabeth’s includes Sheriff Mark, a local dairy farmer named John Ober who was chairman of the River Ridge school board, there is the diner owner named Mr. Wiler, and the local Baptist pastor, Jack Webber. These men were sort of Elizabeth’s soul and conscience and compass all rolled-up together. They’d treat people like family, maybe more than they probably should have, and it got them into trouble sometimes and earned them little recognition all the time.

When cow manure was obviously polluting the stream, they encouraged the council to declare the cause as soil erosion and avoided forcing a young struggling farmer named Ross Clark to pay for the earthmoving necessary to alter his field’s access to a tributary, and the work was done by Mr. Ober himself. Even retired, Sheriff Mark was the peacemaker, intervening with wise alternatives before they became problems for the county sheriff’s office (they didn’t want to be bothered with small-town squabbles); like when Mrs. Jenkins’ son was accused of stealing tomatoes from Mrs. Smith’s garden and the latter wanted to press charges against the former, but Sheriff Mark figured out that it was probably Mrs. Jenkins herself who had stolen the tomatoes and suggested that Mrs. Smith would enjoy some of Mrs. Jenkins sweet corn as compensation. –Hardly Solomonic, but it was as close as Elizabeth had ever seen. Mr. Wiler fed the towns two widows by pretending that their tea was free and charging them 1950’s prices for meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy even though they complained about the gravy and how it wasn’t as good as their own which they hadn’t made since their husbands left them as widows and their kids stopped visiting. Mr. Ober donated milk and cheese to the food pantry at the church so that Pastor Webber could anonymously give it to the poor mother with three children and a sickly husband that everyone gossiped about. These men calmed the disquieted, and remedied the dilemmas of their lonely town, all the while shrugging-off the complaints that preoccupied so many. It wasn’t their responsibility to make people happy or solve everyone’s problems, and even when they did solve their problems people weren’t necessarily happy because some people don’t know how to be happy or are only happy when they have something to complain about, as strange as that sounds. Mr. Ober, Mr. Wiler, Sheriff Mark and Pastor Webber didn’t organize a crusade to change the world, or even change Elizabeth, Illinois. They did what they did because the things they did were the right things to do no matter what other people thought. They were, after all, Wildcats, fight-ing Wildcats, Give your best al-ways. Stand up, with pride, for River Ridge, your loy-al-ty dis-play, Rah, Rah.

In the Hills – Excerpt 2

I was first, then Cathleen and then baby Johnny. It only took a few years to have the three of us, but it changed life in ways mom and dad couldn’t really explain to us, although they tried. That change, or rather changes, that came into their world when we the world. The way they tell it they were very poor and very happy before I was born – romantically living paycheck to paycheck, eating canned peaches and stale bread and peanut butter and saltine crackers the couple of days leading up to the next payday and then after cashing that check they’d buy more of the same anticipating poverty again the next week. They were never ashamed or embarrassed to inform me and then Cathleen and me and then Johnny, Cathleen and me that their happiest days were before me and before us. It wasn’t me or us that made them less happy they told us. It was some unspecified, incalculable ratio of paucity and happiness; sometimes told as one-in-spite-of-the-other and at other times as a we-didn’t-know-any-better-but-that’s-still-okay-because-we-love-you-all kind of fairytale.

They also never tired of reciting the inventory of all their earthly possessions in great detail, which was easily done in light of the number of their possessions. They owned a folding table and three folding chairs that didn’t match as their kitchenette, a very, very old sofa with a back cushion missing and the folding chairs doubled as living room furniture, a double bed and a couple of crates covered with old curtain fabric as night stands for their bedroom suite. Add towels, everyday dishes, hand-me-down flatware, pots, pans and kitchen towels from my dad’s mom’s kitchen and they could cook food when they had enough money to buy food to cook. It never sounded like they bought fresh food, but I’m sure they did – like some hamburger or a can of vegetables or even a potato they shared in a romantic dinner-for-one-eaten-by-two moment they never forgot to rehearse for a table of five with more leftovers than they had for a month before me, before us, as they insisted on reminding us on many occasions.

Before mom became a Mom she was Mary and she was a typist in a secretarial pool. Three years of what we’d call high school education for a poor girl on the south side of Chicago meant typing, grammar and home economics classes. She claimed she only owned two dresses and wore one then the other and then the first one again, rotating the order the next week – that’s what she always told us but we didn’t believe it. And she met my dad while working at the law firm when he was clerking. He was in his second year, didn’t have a penny to his name, lived with his mom, and fell in love with a seventeen year old girl with a 22 inch waist accentuated (according to a photo of her) by a full skirt and tight sweater. He didn’t stand a chance. They had  cheap dates of free concerts in park, visits to museums, the zoo, parades, walks along the lake and anything else free the city of Chicago had to offer. They ate meals at the school’s cafeteria or at one of their family’s homes. “Mary, I have nothing to offer you but my love; will you marry me?” They were standing by the lake next to the Shedd Aquarium.

Like Shedd himself sort of. John Shedd started as a poor clerk in Marshall Field’s store and worked his way up to the top and became president and chairman when Field died – from poverty to riches and a story told through hard work for forty years. Shedd bought into Daniel Burnham’s “make no little plans” hook-line-and-sinker. He put up millions to build his fish tank and then died before it opened but after he paid for it. His own wife – his very own Mary – stood on the lake front and cut the ribbon for him. This made it something romantic and couples just happened to favor this spot for their proposals.

The aquarium was something huge and romantic and totally unrealistic. It took a million gallons of saltwater brought by train from Key West, Florida to fill the tank in this first permanent inland saltwater aquarium. And when did all this happen? Well right at the start of the Great Depression, that’s when! When everyone was dirt poor in Chicago (except Shedd obviously) he built that one damn huge tank of water that sat right there on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was as extravagant as it was ironic. And to top it off, literally, was its Beaux Arts design. That was a style used for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and everyone was so impressed by the Greek and Roman synthesis became a way of making Chicago “the Paris of the Prairie.” That’s why young couples went there to do romantic things, including propose marriage like dad did. They’d stand right there where John’s widow Mary cut the ribbon and promise to tie the knot.

It was a cool spring evening – a Friday they said – in May of 1951 when dad proposed. (Make no little plans.) He didn’t even have a ring to offer her, just a promise that he would always love her no matter what. He said he wanted them to spend the rest of their lives together, to have a family and it didn’t matter that they were poor. Mom told us all this more than once and it was the best story she told. She said “Yes” and now she was 44 weeks pregnant sweating through eighteen hours of labor and dad was pacing in the waiting room wondering how he was going to pay for me.

 

Lost manuscript…

manuscript

This started as the tale of a lost manuscript,

an idea that became a story that might have

become an enjoyable book but never will be

as it took a turn while contemplating what was

sacrificed to produce something that’s now gone,

consuming more time than good should

these years of distraction when everything pleasing

around me twisted, lovingly straining to keep

me in the middle as each new wheel began to spin

its own rings, feeding off the others,

once so close their energy sparked blindingly,

now bouncing in their own orbits here, there,

it all happened so slowly, so perfectly, and I

now know I missed too much that I hope they

each captured while I pounded out words

of a fictional life no one could possibly lead

as my own unbelievably wonderful one spun

in and out of days and seasons and states

that are now the lost manuscript of my life.

In the Hills – Excerpt 1

1958Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

Like you I had the privilege of being present for my own birth. I was right there with my mother but my dad was relegated to pacing in the waiting room. Relegated to the role that no Dad has been trained for and no Dad worth the name accepts easily. He got to pace, back and forth, back and forth and wait; left to worry about paying the bills, wondering what he’d done, how mom was doing and how long he was going to wait – pacing, pacing, pacing. Mom and dad had already waited almost four more weeks than they should have since I was officially 27 days late. Doctors just let you go until you popped-out back in 1956 – no pitocin drip to stimulate contractions, not even old wives tales about drinking castor oil (which only gave you a bowel purging anyway) or having sex to induce labor (which was a little of the hair of the dog that bit you so to speak). Instead they just waited.

Mom just waited in her gravid state for forty weeks plus four. She never let me forget that especially when exasperated with me, ‘I carried you for 44 weeks to have you act like this?! Oh, no, I don’t think so…’. Sitting around the dinner table with all of us waited-for children years later she told us how she was in labor for 26 hours with my younger sister Cathleen and just 9 hours with baby Johnny (and with my 18 hours that equaled 53 hours of contractions – 2 days and 5 hours of labor, of pain, of unexplainable and excruciating discomfort). The math got us started. ‘Okay, okay, so how long were you pregnant with me?’ Cathleen asked. ‘Well just about 40 weeks, not like the 44 weeks with Danny, but Johnny was only 38 weeks.’ ‘That means you were pregnant for…, for…, well…, let’s see….’ I tried to calculate these overwhelming numbers in my head when Cathleen quickly answered, correctly, ‘That means you were pregnant for 122 weeks mom.’ That’s more than 28 months, two and a third years, and that’s 845 days, to be exact. After hearing the math mom never forgot it and never let us forget especially when we were annoying her. But I always thought I was worth it. At least that’s what I imagine.

I’m also pretty sure I was a normal and attractive baby – clean and without blemishes. In labor I may have mildly discomforted my saintly mother who perspired mildly but was a-glow with a hint of make-up and hair quaffed appropriately, covered modestly in a fresh gown and centered in a homey but antiseptic room softly lit with ambience and even pleasantly fragrant. Dozens of medical professionals buzzed about excitedly anticipating my birth. Nurses who were plainly attractive but not one as pretty as my mother were helpfully attending at her head and side, dabbing mom’s brow with a cool cloth and whispering maternal encouragements – secrets shared and understandable only to the uterine gender. The doctor – the only male in the room, before me that is – smiling, directing attention to my imminent appearance but averting his eyes from the vaginal portal whence I emerged lubricated through elastic drapes of privilege allowing only a glimpse of the reproductive secrecy of the origins of my life.

I’ll admit dad was a vague participant in my origins, but only in the masculinity of his grip and biceps and that strength he explained as ‘elbow grease’ and I took to be the determination and commitment and supervision he exerted in our world which was for most of my young life also just the world. Dad was paternal and masculine and sturdy and stalwart. He needed no time to collect his emotions in a time of crisis. He acted sacrificially and bravely without a moment’s notice. He was reliable and a provider of food, shelter, comfort and treats like ice cream on Sunday afternoons and a sip of his beer after a summer Saturday’s gardening. His odor communicated faithfulness – a sameness in his aftershave mixed with the sweat of toil and exertion. And besides the times he was pacing in a waiting room for his children to come into the world I didn’t imagine him waiting for anything.

In a Good Story…

In every good story someone dies
(sometimes, but more frequently,
in bad ones as well); not always
tragically or poignantly, not always
sadly or in a timely fashion, usually
importantly a death is required.

It may be that it’s a way to make
tales more authentic, but it ironically
renders death’s severity a mere ploy
in the hands of desperate dramatists
longing for gravitas yet in failure;
simply turn dust back to dust.

Occasionally it’s accidently but
unexpectedly; and if the desire is
manipulative – the death of a child,
boy or girl, either will do – to tweak
the emotions of even the hardened
with an appeal to the weak.

Now multiple deaths are a waste
to an author and thus school bus
fatalities (a kindergarten field trip
tragedy) are typically avoided
and mass murders’ victims aren’t
the story in the first place.

Too many tales are funereal,
too many yarns come undone
and too many wakes begin stories
of too many things gone wrong;
dramas of dads and mamas
until death do everyone part.

Narrators, of course, play God
knowing, seeing all, all at once
what’s in heads, hiding from light
but telling us only part of a story;
this or that reason for lost life,
providing knowledge we lack.

The human story’s author
has wasted over a hundred billion
anonymous deaths littering lands,
mocking prophet amidst dry bones;
the deity’s wonderful plan for life
trumps all novelist’s narratives.

Walkabout…

WalkingI went for a walk
in the midday clear
without a care
I started here
first I stepped
down the way
looking to turn
and go astray
few set out such
finding one lost
choosing to remain
found at all cost
views first cleared
then went belief
next conviction
this path a thief
I trust no thought
that comes at rest
and make no vow
without a test
no crumbs to trace
no map to cheat
this losing way
made by my feet
I recall that once
it was très fictional
to banter such
so equivocal
for keeping all
enslaved in race
made wars of life
with power in place
until such time
as walks unrare
became a fashion
and tactless aware
question a question
doubt a doubt
avoiding tenure
enjoying the route
power is race,
race is war,
art is tactic
and strategy ignore
limping along
there are ways
for undoing control
and refusing praise
ignoring so much
of important voice
searching out stories
learning to rejoice
enjoying the noise
and lacking cares
following slaves
attending affairs
there is no way
no map to home
no loss of joy
and so I roam.

Da Yu

Yu-the-Great_proj-copy-700x420

This is the story of Da Yu, who we saw walking along a roadside on the early evening of one Sunday – Easter Sunday of all Sundays – and a child asked “What’s that man’s story?”

So this is Da’s story.

Yu the Great was the founder of the Xia Dynasty over four thousand years ago. Yu’s father attempted to control a great flood that threatened land and life. He built dikes and damns of soil and rock to hold back and contain the waters. He failed.

The great flood continued. Yu was conscripted to do what his father could not. Instead of restraining the great flood, Yu dredged deeper channels in rivers and valleys to carry the great flood to distant rivers and distant seas.

He opened waterways, unearthed damns and removed dikes with hard labor in long days. He was covered with the same dirt and mud his father struggled to amass, but Yu was washed clean in the rushing flood he did not resist. Yu succeeded in the task his father failed, and he was given the name Yu the Great – Da Yu.

Today Da wears his suit. The blue one He has just the one and he’s only ever had just the one. So, Da wears it. As dusk begins to cover this late April afternoon, along a road he’d built, Da Yu walks in his blue suit and white shirt – his shirt as white as his full head of thick hair – he walks home, alone.

As a young man Da Yu was pushed in one direction and pulled in another – he didn’t want what his father demanded for him and yet would not refuse what he must do.

Mr. Yu – Da’s father – insisted, “You will not be like me.” The hard life of manual labor had strengthened the father’s back and his resolve as well, and he was determined that his son would not live such a hard life because he didn’t have to live like his father had to: “I work so you can learn to do better work; not so hard work, and you will be happy and not tired like me.”

On his eighteenth birthday Da received just one gift from his parents – a blue suit. It was as expensive for Mr. Yu as it was important, “You will wear a suit and not dungarees.”

But this changed the day Mr. Yu came home lame.

Mr. Yu would not cry in front of his wife and son – he would yell and stomp and curse, but Da knew his father cried when Da was forced to give up on his father’s plans and dreams. The boss of the road crew Mr. Yu worked said that Da could have the work until Mr. Yu was healthy. Mr. Yu barked “Never!” but he never was healthy again. As a man of hard labor, he withered each day he was lame, and willed from his bed – fighting back the inevitable – the victory that eluded him. Mr. Yu never worked again and Da worked every day for forty years from that day.

Not long after Da wore the suit to his father’s funeral.

He wore it when he asked a sweet girl named Sarah to marry him, and he wore it when they married in her church.

He wore it when his boy Sun was christened for Sarah’s sake, and he wore it the Sunday he went to church each year on Easter. She didn’t ask much and he knew this was to please Sarah’s family because they were concerned about Da, and that Sarah was settling for a man who lacked dreams; a man who did not fight back, a man who simply nodded. All this Da knew but it was never spoken of – there was nothing to be gained and little that would change if he protested. He would work his hard work and wear his dungaree, and save his blue suit for special days to be remembered.

In his first years, Da’s skin became tanned and leathery from summers and winters, the cold, rain and heat of long, hard days. His hair was black and thick and covered his head, and a cap only made him sweat so he avoided his. The crew chided Da that he yellowed in the sun. Sarah worried that he worked too many hours, but a was happy to work and he was healthy and would do whatever was asked and he worked hard. When asked he would simply nod; he was glad to work. He did not refuse hard work.

Da didn’t get bigger or fatter or stooped like the others with whom he worked. Younger men took their places and the next generation took up the same lament – work is hard and the best work is no work.

But Da was healthy and quiet and bosses wished they had a dozen Yu’s but hired more of the others instead. Da’s hair did turn white; not gray – white and pure.

When his child, Sun was a young boy he would asked his father what he did, why his skin was so dark and rough, and why his hair was white like snow. Da always answered that he worked in the sun and rain and snow, so his skin showed he worked hard, and his hair just showed outside what was inside. But the boy didn’t understand.

Sarah was kind to Da; gentle and affectionate – she called him Yu-Yu, lovingly, and she was understanding of his labor. What he earned he gave his family and took little for himself. She worked herself when Sun started school, and she’d ask him to take a day to rest, but he’d always refuse, “What would I do if it wasn’t working?” he’d answer.

When they had time they’d take walks together, with Sun in a stroller, then the three on foot; always just walks that took different paths, along different roads and streets and returned them to their small home. It was the home Da’s father and mother had, the home Da had grown up in, the home Sarah and Da moved into after they were married to care for his mother, and the home she died in one night and their home since the day Da wore his suit to his mother’s funeral.

Da didn’t dream dreams of a different life, and he refused the nightmares of his own son’s life. There was only discontent in such dreams, and Da’s way was a nod and not a dream. He never bought Sun a suit – he could afford to, he had the money, but the thought never occurred to him.

When Sun grew, his mother and father helped when they could with clothes and books and papers that proved their modesty, but Sun grew embarrassed. The very things that showed their love were too modest for their son. Soon Sun was off to school, but Da and Sarah didn’t visit their son until his graduation when Da wore his suit and Sarah coughed through commencement. It was a cough that came one day and stayed, keeping her away from work, in bed eventually being cared for in the evenings by Da who stopped taking the walks.

The next time Da wore his suit it was to Sarah’s funeral.

Sun moved away and stayed away, but Da kept working, now less with shovel and more with a sign that read Stop and Slow. And he again walked at the end of each day, retracing the same paths and same roads and streets he’d walked with Sarah and Sun. He lived in the same home but it became more of a house. He washed his clothes, his own dungarees, made his rice and worked only his own hours until they told him he’d worked enough and not to come back tomorrow.

And then he’d wait each day until it was time to take the walk at the day’s end, walking the same paths and same roads and same streets he’d walked with his Sarah and Sun. And on Easter Sunday each year he’d put on his blue suit and leave it on all day, until the day’s end and he’d walk along the street he’d paved.

6 Kinds of People

peopleThere are six kinds of people in the world,
and while that seems a few too many, it
really is just about right; most tell the story
in binary terms of thin or fat, tall or short,
boy or girl, innie or outie, lefty or righty,
black or white, but the either/or’s miss
the point that they’re there to make life
easier, remove fear and create it at the
same time, in the us/them of good or
evil, on or off, East or West; six kinds
of people is too hard for thoughtless
assumptions and is never divisible the
same way every time; the first kind of
person needs drama, enemies or gossip
to feel important and alive, the second is
passive-aggressive in an adolescent kind
of way, like adolescents are, rejoicing
in not liking much as in nothing much,
the third are the lovers of any and all
in a genuine need to love whatever
it doesn’t matter what, no matter who,
and the fourth just don’t understand
what the problem is but are unsure why
everyone seems so uncomfortable all the
time, the fifth are saddled with guilt and
consternation over what must have gone
wrong and are eager to serve as the
scapegoat of life’s troubles and unsatisfied
desires, and the sixth kind are very, very
needy but there’s nothing that will satisfy
whatever it is that may be needed; and
there is no seventh kind or perfect balance
or exact blend of all in just one, no
superhero or Mary Poppins of practically
perfect proportionality to frustrate everyone
else and solve the puzzle; all in-between
are tints, hues and shades creating
landscapes of families and clubs,
churches and schools, homes and
aways that struggle over who to admit,
to welcome, to evangelize, convince,
convert, or date or marry, love and
hate, ally with or against in this circle
of surviving constantly being twisted
into squares but refusing to hold
the edges and always opting for the
three-hundred-sixty degrees that
breathing requires; this is no
anthropology or divinity but strange
anecdotes of funny stories with punch
lines and laughs to be shared or
explained as we search for an audience
called friendship in the theatre of war.